May 21, 2009

Why journalism and the market don't fit together

Robert Picard’s piece in the Christian Science Monitor, Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay (published Tuesday) will go down with the NUJ like a lead balloon. He argues that journalists deserve low pay because:

Wages are compensation for value creation. And journalists simply aren’t creating much value these days.

If we accept his first point – that wages are compensation for value creation – then his second point is right on the money.

But that’s a slavishly ‘markets-rule-the-world’ kind of mindset. In the real world, wages are compensation for our time, effort and experience. We get paid more (unless we’re a banker) because we put in the time, the graft and have the knowledge and qualifications to do the job that’s required.

Basically, my point is that if we’re going to pay people because of the value they create, then teachers and doctors would be multi-millionaires and journalists would earn 50p per hour.

Neither of those things are the case.

But let’s ignore that for now and move down Robert Picard’s piece, because much of it is a wake-up call to the struggling media industry.

Journalism must innovate and create new means of gathering, processing, and distributing information so it provides content and services that readers, listeners, and viewers cannot receive elsewhere. And these must provide sufficient value so audiences and users are willing to pay a reasonable price.

Like much of the article, this is so right it hurts. But written from an American’s perspective (albeit via Oxfordshire), Mr Picard’s argument ignores the importance of public service broadcasting, which is fairly thin on the ground in the US.

There are lots of stories out there for everyone to chew on, many of them original, worth reading and worth paying for. But with public service organisations to compete with, commercial news providers find that the pool of original journalism is reduced in size and harder to find.

This makes it hard to have such a diverse, privately-owned, profit-making media in the UK. But I’m not going to complain about that. Too much of the commercial world (whether television, radio, print or online) has given up the fight and has little energy left for original, value-creating journalism. They should be left to wither or should face up to radical change.

But Mr Picard’s scenario, combined with the UK’s exceptional circumstances, make me think that the Guardian’s model of ownership (through a not-for-profit trust) might be the best way forward. It recognises the necessity for a pluralistic media industry while not relying on the distraction of profit above-all-else that most organisations have to live with.

Mr Picard’s article calls on journalists to change their mindset, and he’s right to do that. But the ownership model needs to change too. Unless journalism is taken away from shareholders and investment funds, it won’t just fail to create value. It’ll fail to exist.


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